February 1, 2014

​Poll: Younger Christians Less Supportive of the Death Penalty

©2014 Religion News Service

One day after the state of Ohio executed a man
for murder, a new poll shows younger Christians are not as supportive of the
death penalty as older members of their faith.

When asked if they agreed that “the government
should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” 42 percent of
self-identified Christian boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said “yes.” Only
32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials, born between 1980 and
2000, said the same thing.

The poll, conducted by Barna Group this past
summer and released to Religion News Service
on January 17, surveyed 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus
or minus 2.6 percentage points.

It showed an even sharper difference in support
for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as
those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church
at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers
support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23
percent of practicing Christian millennials do.

Other polling organizations such as Gallup, show
similar generational trends among Americans in general.

Heather Beaudoin, national organizer for Equal
Justice USA, a national organization working to reform the criminal justice
system, said the Barna research confirms what she sees: a growing desire among
younger Christians to abolish the death penalty.

“The question for them is no longer ‘Is it right
or wrong?’” said Beaudoin. “They are seeing how it is actually functioning in
our country — the race issues, the risk of executing the innocent, the fact
that if you can afford an attorney you’ll probably not end up on death row —
and they are changing their minds.”

Roxanne Stone, vice president for publishing at
Barna, said capital punishment may increasingly be seen as a human rights or
social justice issue.

“This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life
conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well
as abortion,” Stone said. “For many younger Christians, the death penalty is
not a political dividing point but a human rights issue.”

And what of that age-old question, “What would
Jesus do?”

According to the Barna study, only 5 percent of
Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the
worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10
percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his

“People use Jesus as their ideal and what they
aspire to,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Center in Washington. “But in practical day-to-day living they know
they will fall short and be less than ideal. They might think that the ideal is
to turn the other cheek or not throw the first stone, but they do. They are
more pragmatic.”